In Science and Scriptural Interpretation, Communities Matter


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How do we react when we read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ encounters with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11), or the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:21–28), or the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17–25)? An immigrant, for example, is likely to interpret the Canaanite woman incident in a very different way from a 4th generation citizen. And the impact of the conversation between Jesus and the rich young ruler depends critically on your wealth—and how much it means to you! Moreover, the history of civil disobedience shows that one’s interpretation of the biblical command to “submit yourselves to those in authority” (Rom 13:1; 1 Pet 2:13) depends on your personal politics/values and the views of those who are in a position of power. All biblical texts, then, will evoke different responses depending on our gender, ethnicity, social and economic status, and religious tradition. What this means is that there will inevitably be more than one interpretation of Scripture.

This raises an interesting and important question: Is biblical exegesis without presuppositions possible?[1] The answer is: no! All scholars approach a text with presuppositions, or prior assumptions, about how that text should be read. No interpreter, however self-aware, can be completely objective and neutral. We all read Scripture through a “lens.” Those spectacles not only include our prior theological outlook, but also our culture, social standing, educational heritage, race, politics, etc. This means that we cannot approach the text without a bias. This is not a “bad” thing that we can overcome, just simply something of which we should be acutely self-aware. What is therefore necessary is that we raise our starting assumptions to conscious level and so allow them to be tested, so putting them at risk. Authentic engagement with the biblical text occurs when we allow the text to challenge and change our starting assumptions. This is one way through which the Spirit can work (John 16:13).

What this means is that there is always a subjective element to interpretation. Whatever a person knows about history, the Bible, indeed anything, depends on the perspective of the investigator and his/her acts of interpretation. Since every interpreter is located in a social and historical context, the interpretation will (and must) therefore be limited by the worldview of the interpreter.[2]

This conclusion may seem surprising, as many are inclined to assume there is only one and only one correct and objective interpretation of Scripture. While the Bible does still “speak” today, what we “hear” will be different depending on whether we live in, say, America or Syria, South Africa or Russia, Japan or Brazil. Since pure “objectivity” is inherently impossible, there is no point in trying to find a new technique of interpretation that strives to overcome our personal bias. Instead, we allow the biblical text to make us consciously aware of—and challenge—our own presuppositions and to effect change. Consequently, we read the text (and its context) and the text reads us (and our context); it is an open-ended “dialogue.” The degree to which we are self-aware and allow the text to “read” us, so causing us to be transformed in the process, demonstrates our authenticity in engaging with Scripture.

This clearly involves a personal commitment to the interpretation process. It takes courage to read the biblical text in such a way—because it might demand a change to what we dearly hold to be true. The interpretation process, then, requires a commitment—a step of faith. It is not unlike a relationship of love; meaningful commitment to that relationship is likely to bring about dramatic, even unpredictable, changes in us. That relationship is both personal and founded on trust.

If we step back for a moment and reflect on our experience of knowing, we can recognize this important—and often overlooked—principle: faith precedes knowledge. We need faith in our presuppositions, or our knowledge foundations, before (and after) we build upon them—whether this is in the context of biblical interpretation or, indeed, of science.[3] All scientists exhibit faith in, for example, the objective reality of the universe[4] and believe that it is genuinely intelligible to a particular carbon-based life-form on an obscure planet near the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy![5] The latter is, I think, surprisingly profound; Einstein commented: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” This need not, of necessity, be the case. This is reminiscent of St. Anselm’s famous dictum: “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.” Having faith requires a commitment prior to the outcome of the engagement with the biblical text—or the scientific experiment.

Professor Michael Polanyi, F.R.S. From the Michael Polanyi Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago, Box 45, folder 3. (Source)

In his seminal work, Personal Knowledge (1958), Hungarian-born philosopher and social scientist Michael Polanyi made an important contribution to the philosophy of science, one that has also made a significant impact on theologians— such as Lesslie Newbigin.[6] One can see why from Alister McGrath:

Polanyi’s fundamental assertion is that all knowledge—whether it relates to the natural sciences, religion or philosophy—is personal in nature. Polanyi’s post-critical approach to the nature of knowledge argues that knowledge must involve personal commitment. Although knowledge involves concepts or ideas, it also involves something more profound—a personal involvement with that which is known. . . . [7]

Rather than absolute, detached, objectivity (as is assumed in the traditional “scientific method”) there is instead personal involvement. This is something that rings true for me as a physicist and accurately describes the scientist’s passionate commitment in both “knowing” (the process of science) and the “known” (the object of science, nature). Polanyi argued that all knowledge relies on personal judgements, rather than it arising from a mechanistic formula—such as the scientific method.

Scientists not only use their senses and judgement but also use tools that are purpose-built for the study at hand. This is analogous to the way that surgeons use their instruments, or a carpenter uses a hammer, or a person who is blind uses a white stick. They are not focusing their attention on the tool but on the object that the tool is manipulating or sensing. If you focus on holding the hammer you are likely to miss the nail that you are trying to hit! Those tools, therefore, become an extension of our bodies such that we indwell the instrument. For scientists, that indwelling involves implicit trust in our instruments and our perceptions in the study of nature. While we use our instruments, we do so a-critically; we cannot at the same time rely on them and doubt them.[8] There is, therefore, an existential—or experiential—element to knowing. It is not just our minds that are involved; our senses, augmented by the instruments we indwell, are also intimately and actively a part of knowing.

Furthermore, we know more than we can prove or articulate; I can intuitively recognize my wife in a crowd of faces, but I can’t articulate to another how that intuition comes about. Knowledge, then, is both personal and tacit. Instead of the traditional confidence in the absolute objectivity of the observer and the power of reason, the scientist is seen to exhibit faith. Science not only contains logical deductions, but interpretation, inspiration, intuition, and skill—all human qualities—all easily appreciated in an artistic endeavor.

Polanyi’s ideas also resonate strongly with our experience of biblical interpretation. That is why science and Christianity are much closer than people sometimes think. Both involve acts of interpretation, in both cases knowledge is personal and requires a prior commitment to the means of knowing and the known.

Nevertheless, science functions within a community and that tradition authorizes science itself. For example, the practice of science involves sponsorship and publication of results, both of which require the approval of one’s peers. Consider the process of publishing a scientific paper: the personal knowledge of the scientist now becomes shared public knowledge, a process not without risk since papers can be rejected. The scientist’s personal judgment is being scrutinized by others with appropriate training and experience. Without the discoverer’s findings being authenticated by his or her peer community there is a sense that scientist’s findings remain “private truth,” to borrow Newbigin’s phrase. However, the scientist’s personal knowledge is not merely subjective, but has universal intent. The scientific community’s endorsement is the means by which private truth becomes “public truth.” This peer-review process does not guarantee the veracity of the public truth; there is always a sense in which knowledge is tentative and open to future revision. We have all heard in the news of scientific stories of dramatic discoveries which were later retracted because no one else could repeat the observations. In addition, the private truths of Copernicus and Galileo were actually correct, even if the tradition of their day refused to accept their findings as public truth. Even so, it was the community that, in time, provided the self-correction.

The parallels for the Christian—of both being a part of a larger community (and its important role in stabilizing interpretation) and of passionate personal knowledge and commitment—is evident. It is because of these similarities in the nature of biblical interpretation and the nature of science that the two can genuinely dialogue with each other.


[1] For further discussion see Silva, “Contemporary Theories of Biblical Interpretation,” 109–11 and McLean, Biblical Interpretation and Philosophical Hermeneutics, 143–56.[2] This does not mean that “anything goes” in our interpretation. Recognizing the necessary existence of multiple possible interpretations can empower views that others would rather not sanction. This has occurred in the past, whereby Scripture has been used to justify racism and slavery, for example. There is, therefore, an ethical dimension to the use and abuse of Scripture of which we must be acutely aware. A rigorous, responsible, exegetical study of the text, one that strives to understand the author’s intent and its context—as best as we can— at least acts as a kind of guardrail to contemporary interpretations.[3] Newbigin writes: “Both faith and doubt have their proper roles in the whole enterprise of knowing, but faith is primary and doubt is secondary because rational doubt depends upon beliefs that sustain our doubt.” Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 105.

[4] We will resist entering the world of The Matrix, or the dream worlds of Inception. Rather, I assert that the universe really exists for all of us and is not a product of our brain’s imagination. We cannot strictly prove this, of course, although we all generally live our lives on the basis that it is true!

[5] In short, science requires faith in human reason.

[6] Hungarian-born Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) was first a professor of physical chemistry and later became a professor of social science, both at the University of Manchester, U.K.

[7] McGrath, Science and Religion, 84–85.

[8] Newbigin, Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 34. This does not mean that scientists use their instruments naively. Intense scrutiny over the inexactness that the instrument itself introduces into the scientific observation, along with a thorough understanding of all the auxiliary assumptions and principles of the instrument and its use, is undertaken by every skillful experimentalist. Even with this rigor, honest mistakes can still occur and that in itself is a learning process that progresses scientific knowledge.


Chalmers, Alan F. What is This Thing Called Science? 3rd ed. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999.

McGrath, Alister E. Science and Religion: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

McLean, B. H. Biblical Interpretation and Philosophical Hermeneutics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

———. Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Reddish, Tim. Science and Christianity: Foundations and Frameworks for Moving Forward in Faith. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016.

Scott, Drucilla. Everyman Revisited: The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Silva, Moisés. “Contemporary Theories of Biblical Interpretation.” In vol. I of New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, edited by Leander E. Keck, 107–24. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.

Westphal, Merold. Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.

God’s Good Chaos


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Biblical references to the mysterious sea monsters—Leviathan and Rahab—seem bizarre and are largely ignored by most Christians. How are we to understand such references? And do they have anything to say to contemporary Christians? I think they do, since they represent a complementary depiction of creation from that of Genesis 1-2—one that is often overlooked. Such references indicate that untamed chaos has a God-ordained place within creation.

Harvard Jewish scholar Jon Levenson sees two different forms of chaos in the Old Testament: (a) inert matter lacking order and so requiring differentiation (e.g. potter and clay metaphor, Gen. 2:7-9) and (b) chaos as a living being with its own will and personality that is at cross purposes with God and must be overcome before God can create the cosmos. This borrowed imagery comes from the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors.[1] Genesis 1 can be understood in the context of (a). However there are a number of creation references within the Wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and Psalms) that are articulated in terms of (b).

There are several ways in which the sea and its monsters are depicted in the Bible. One usage is that God simply confines the sea (i.e. no sea monsters are mentioned, or the waters are not personified, e.g. Prov. 8:29; Ps. 33:6-9; Sir. 16:26-27). Another way makes more graphic reference to the (Babylonian) Tiamat and (Ugaritic) Yam imagery in the context of creation, for example Psalms 74:13-14. In the first usage, it is clear that God does not eradicate the sea (or waters) but allows them to function within boundaries or limits. The latter portrayal is also present in Job, where there is also often explicit reference to Leviathan/Rahab (Job 26:8-13; Job 38:8-11). While God’s power is very evident in these texts, there is still a persistence to the presence of the sea and/or its monsters. The sea may be confined, but it is not tamed. In Psalms 104:24-26, Leviathan is not only part of creation (see Gen. 1:21) but was also formed, or made, for “sport”! Only God can confront these creatures (Job 40:19; 41:10-11) that no human (or other gods, Job 41:9, 25) can tame. A further—and most rare—usage is the eschatological reference to Leviathan in Isaiah 27:1 and 2 Esdras 6:52. Moreover, in Revelation 21:1 (“..and the sea was no more..”), John the Seer also envisages a time when chaos will finally be defeated. The ‘sea,’ the locus of chaos, will ultimately cease to exist. Until “that day” we are to live within an untamed world. For now, the boundary between chaos and order will be unpredictable and subject to times of stability as well as moments of violent disorder.

This portrayal of chaos as a turbulent sea, or personified as a monster that no one other than God can tame, is very different from uniform disorder or static randomness. The texts support the view that God has sovereignly chosen not to eliminate chaos (yet), as, presumably, this would not lead to the kind of cosmos that God intended. Why? Because order requires chaos, you cannot have one without the other. Indeed, perfect order would be boring and would not give rise to creativity, spontaneity, or development.[2] Chaos and chance can also bring about good change, new possibilities, not just destruction. Yet, unconfined chaos is too tempestuous to allow, since the conditions necessary for the emergence of order and life are too fragile (cf. the Great Flood).[3] God gives freedom for chaos to be the ‘other’ only within certain boundaries.

Having painted a broad canvas on the usage of the sea and its monsters in the Wisdom literature, let us briefly return to Job. The book of Job is both profound and enigmatic. Scholars have wrestled with its poetic contents, bizarre prose prologue, and surprising epilogue. There are diverse views on many aspects of the story, including God’s two speeches at the conclusion. While this is not the place to explore the depths of this book, or the wider problem of suffering (theodicy), creation is, as we have already seen, a persistent theme within Job.

In Chapters 38-41 God (finally) responds to Job in a somewhat incongruous way by presenting him with a tour of the natural world. Many readers (and scholars) would claim that God seems to be insensitive to Job and his suffering, and God’s response seems to avoid the issues of Job’s complaint. Certainly the response is not what Job—or the reader—expected. Old Testament Scholar Terrence Fretheim takes a more positive route. Fretheim argues that God’s response is one that genuinely addresses Job’s concerns and is focused on nature because therein lies a key point that God wants Job to appreciate. After all, two of Job’s original calamities were natural disasters (1:16, 19). God says that Job does not understand the way in which God’s world works. Job interprets the disorder within nature as defective and/or mismanaged creation, rather than precisely the kind of world that God intended. Consequently, although the world is good, well-ordered, and reliable, it is also wild, untamed, and not risk-free to humankind. God, then, challenges Job to recognize the proper nature of the creation and that suffering may be experienced in just such a world, quite apart from sin and evil. In so doing, Job may better appreciate what his place and role is within God’s world, even in the midst of suffering.

God’s first reply (38:1-40:2) is an exhaustive catalogue of his creative and sustaining acts. That speech can be divided into two sections: (a) cosmic and the physical order (38:4-38) and (b) God’s providence for wild animals 38:39-39:30 (namely: the lion, raven, mountain goat, deer, wild donkey, wild ox, ostrich, war horse, hawk, and eagle). Like Genesis 1, it is not just the regions that God defines, but also what goes on within them. The writing style is a series of rhetorical questions, typical of wisdom literature, to which the implied answer is ‘no.’ This serves to highlight human ignorance and powerlessness in contrast to the extensive and complex creation that God created and continually sustains. These questions put Job in his place as someone who has “words without knowledge” (38:2) and yet who dares to argue with God (40:2). God’s second speech (40:6-41:34) has a strong emphasis on two mysterious creatures Behemoth and Leviathan. While these two animals could be thought to refer to the hippopotamus and crocodile, respectively, their darker, symbolic reputation cannot be overlooked. This is especially manifest in the context in which Leviathan and the Sea has been used earlier within Job. Nevertheless, by taking these mythical beings as representatives of ‘chaos’ does not make them—or the disorder they depict—morally evil. They are simply a part of the diverse and wonderful world that God has created. Still, chaos is truly awesome and beyond any human control. Fretheim asserts that it is not helpful to suggest that chaos is fully within divine control. While God has set a boundary to Leviathan’s activity, that limit does not entail divine micromanagement. Rather, God lets his creatures function freely within their divine restrictions. What this reveals is that there are elements of God’s good creation that are complex and ambiguous—not everything is neat and tidy, as Job presupposes it should be.[4] Fretheim concludes:

This creational being and becoming is well-ordered, but the world does not run like a machine, with a tight causal weave; it has elements of randomness and chaos, of strangeness and wildness. Amid the order there is room for chance… Given the communal character of the cosmos—its basic interrelatedness—every creature will be touched by the movement of every other. While this has negative potential, it also has a positive side, for only then is there the genuine possibility for growth, creativity, novelty, surprise, and serendipity.[5]

In summary, a morally neutral chaos has a creative place within God’s dynamic world, with both the potential for good and bad for creatures. This element of disharmony is an integral and essential part of a world that is in the process of ‘becoming.’ Volcanoes are needed to replenish our atmosphere in order to sustain life; this requires a planet with active geology. The Earth has plate tectonics with earthquakes and tsunamis. Our sun-heated atmosphere sustains life, but it also gives hurricanes, tornadoes, and cyclones. These messy, disorderly natural disasters have a role to play in our dynamic world. Order and chaos are inseparable; the violence of physical processes and the birth-death-decay cycle are features of God’s good world. Yet these events also have the capacity to bring suffering to humans and animals—even for righteous people, such as Job.[6] While untamed chaos has a God-ordained place within creation, God nevertheless declares all this as “very good” (Gen. 1:21, 31).


References & Credits

[1] J. D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence, (New York, Harper and Row, 1988), chs 1-4. McGrath makes the same point: A. E. McGrath Christian Theology, 5th ed. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 217.

[2] This is not to suggest that heaven will be boring—heaven is a different sort of reality altogether that we cannot conceptualize with our human imagination.

[3] In the flood narrative, the rain ceases because God ‘restrains’ the heavens (Gen. 8:2). In the covenant with Noah, God does not eliminate chaos but simply promises that the regular cycles of nature will faithfully continue as long as the Earth endures (Gen. 8:22).

[4] Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 235, 237.

[5] Ibid., 244.

[6] Terence E. Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God and Natural Disasters (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 81-84, 108.

Learning from History? The Absorption of Scientific Worldviews into Theology

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We will soon be marking the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first trial in February 1616. It was then that Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the universe was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as being an heretical teaching and in contradiction to Holy Scripture. That first trial was not so much about Galileo, but on who interprets Scripture and on what basis or principles. By the late Middle Ages, Aristotelianism became absorbed within the Christian worldview. This perspective was still dominant among theologians and within academia at the time of Galileo. He was therefore combating the physics of Aristotle, which Galileo had shown to be in error by means of experiment, but which was now embodied within the Church’s theology.

George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[1] There are times when I wonder if some Christians have fully grasped the significance of the Galileo trial because, in certain quarters at least, the science and Christianity debate has a strong sense of déjà vu about it. Some Christians today have failed to grasp that a key underlying concern at the time of Galileo was over the theological implications of a non-stationary Earth. The Church’s union of theology, geocentrism, and the Aristotelian worldview provided a robust framework whereby people knew their place in the cosmos. The difficulty with the heliocentric worldview was that it displaced humankind from the center of the universe. Humankind was now drifting on one of the solar system’s many planets orbiting the sun. This was perceived as debasing to humankind, in contrast to it being the pinnacle of creation and being made “a little lower than the angels” (Ps. 8:5). That problem is significantly worse today, as we now know that our sun is fairly nondescript and merely one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. And there are estimated to be 100 billion galaxies in the universe. A similar problem can be found within the evolution and creation debate. What is the status of humankind, made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27), if we are an inherent part of the animal kingdom? At the heart of both the heliocentric and evolution issues is the implied question: What, then, is the place of humankind in God’s created order? This anthropological question is one reason why the matter is so emotive.

While everyone is quite at ease with the heliocentric worldview today—and most accept what astronomers say concerning our place in the vast cosmos—many conservative Christians still wrestle with the issue of evolution. One aspect of the matter is, I suspect, that we cannot really comprehend large numbers. We cannot imagine billions of stars and galaxies, or billions of years. These descriptors of both space and time are outside of our common experience. Nevertheless, many Christians are not uncomfortable with the vastness of space and so accept most of the findings of modern astronomers. Yet, ironically, many of these same Christians deeply troubled with the timescales of billions of years that is a feature of both cosmic and biological evolution. For me, the theological response to the spatio-temporal place of humankind in God’s created order, in light of both cosmology and biological evolution, must be essentially the same. Differentiating between those two dimensions (and issues) is unnecessary, unhelpful, and unwise.

Just as Aristotelianism had been absorbed within the Christian worldview and so contributed to the conflict between Galileo and the Church, so we can ask: Has the paradigm of classical physics been uncritically absorbed into our modern theology? In the world conceived by Newton and Laplace, nature was an intricate and harmonious machine that followed unchangeable laws.[2] Those laws can be understood theologically as expressing the faithfulness of God and demonstrating his sovereignty.[3] Within the paradigm of classical physics it is quite straightforward to find coherence with the traditional theological doctrines, such as the view of a God who is ‘outside’ of time and foresees everything—which is the basis of predestination. If questions concerning God’s sovereignty, immutability, omniscience, and omnipotence seem destabilizing, is it because—at least in part—the certainty that is inherently implied within a mechanistic worldview has crept into our theological thinking and biases? These classical attributes of God have a long history, but they are more a result of the syncretism of Christianity and Greek thought than of an Old Testament Jewish outlook.[4] These attributes can be seen to be reinforced by a mechanistic worldview, with a God “who is in (tight) control.” If the paradigm of classical physics has influenced our view of God—and clearly the rise of deism demonstrates that it did—then it is right and proper to explore the challenge(s) of the new paradigm of modern physics to theology.

Quantum mechanics, which describes atoms, molecules, and their constituents, radically challenges our common-sense view of a cause-and-effect world. This has resulted in a statistical description of nature at the microscopic level, shattering the previous closed, or clockwork, view of the cosmos. What, as Christians, are we to make of the element of chance (indeterminacy) that seems to be at the heart of nature? Does even talking about the role of chance in nature fill us with fear because it challenges our desire for ‘control,’ if not by us, at least by an all-powerful God? Or does it fill us with excitement over an open world that is pregnant with new possibilities.

God’s action in the world has been traditionally viewed in terms of sustaining order through the laws of nature. More recently scientist-theologians are recognizing God’s providential care of the cosmos through chance as well as order—i.e. through both contingency and necessity. Divine action is less rigid and more fluid than has been traditionally asserted, not least by the doctrine of predestination. Living with the inherent uncertainty that this new fluidity demands is, I suggest, a normal part of our postmodern journey of faith. The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. We walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).

In conclusion, I advocate that the quest for modernism’s certainty, which is embodied in physical and theological determinism, needs to be abandoned. The mechanistic view of the world is officially dead, even if it dies slowly in our consciousness. Let us not resurrect it within our theology and so inhibit our view of God’s capabilities and activities in the world. The case of Galileo proved, ultimately, to be a corrective to the Church’s outlook—not least in terms of hermeneutics. If we believe that God is at work in history, as I do, then we have grounds to expect the present science-theology interface to be a similar enlightening work of the Spirit.

[1] Which is remarkably similar to Edmund Burke’s earlier quote: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

[2] The notion of a clock-maker God who made the cosmos, wound up the mechanism, and then let it proceed on its predetermined course is known as Deism. Deism was very popular in the Enlightenment and many who claim to believe in God today have this kind of deity in mind. This creator “God,” though powerful and intelligent, is far from the relational God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the Trinitarian God of the Christian tradition.

[3] This is quite consistent with Aquinas’ primary cause, with the laws of nature being God’s instruments (secondary causes).

[4] See, for example, Clark H. Pinnock Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 65-74.